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Hope: is it really good for us?

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

In my last post, I promised I’d say more about hope, and here goes.

I get it. Hope feels good. If you’ve been down, hope feels great! Anything that gives you hope feels like a lifesaver. We’re so grateful for even a children’s story, like The Little Engine that Could. “If I just keep on keeping on, everything will be okay.”

But purely hope-based effort doesn’t make sense. Hopes are dashed all the time. Sometimes everything turns out okay. Sometimes things end not so great. Sometimes things turn out horribly. The new restaurant you started with so much hope...well, we all know the failure rate of new businesses. All of which started with high hopes.

Now here’s where the problem comes in: hope is addictive. Literally. It affects your brain chemistry. It gives you a high, completely separate from any reality. So people who’ve had a hit of hope...well, once they come off their high, they want another hit. Another affirmation. Another motivational seminar. Another book promising the moon. I’ve written self-help books and I know the genre. What sells is the promise. The hope. The high the hope gives you.

No wonder there’s a hope industry and no wonder so many of us have bought into it.

But in the end chasing hope gives you nothing. Imagine you want to be a plumber and you go to school to learn this valuable and lucrative trade. But in school all you’re taught is how to be hopeful about how much money you’ll make and how grateful people will be for your services. How’s that going to work when you actually have to go out there and fix someone’s pipes?

If I’m on the ground and I want to get on the roof, I need a ladder, not hope. And if I don’t have a ladder, I need to know how to make a ladder, not hope.

Now in ordinary conversation, hope is fine. “Well, today we have our picnic. Sure hope it doesn’t rain!” Nothing wrong with that.

I break my leg and you are kind enough to message me “Hope you recover soon!” Fine. A lovely thought.

So no problem there.

Another okay use of the word hope is when it’s based on new realities. Imagine a headline: “New drug offers hope for stopping the development of Alzheimer's in the early stage.” Wow! That IS reason to be hopeful. A drug that will stop Alzheimer’s if you catch it early enough.

But think about what this is saying. It’s not saying be hopeful. Or that hope is good. It’s saying we’ve found a reason to be hopeful. Like if you’re driving in the desert and are afraid you’re going to run out of gas. But then you see a gas station in the distance. Now hope makes sense.

That’s actually a useful analogy here. Let’s think of life as driving in the desert. It’s risky. There’s a lot of uncertainty. So what do you need to carry you through it? Hope isn’t going to get your car through hundreds of miles in the desert. Knowing how to cope will. In the case of cars in the desert, that means having your car checked out before you go, having plenty of water and spare gas in the car with you, plus a healthy spare tire, and other things people might advise.

The seductive thing about hoping as a way of getting through life is it costs nothing in the moment. You only pay the price later one when the hopes come crashing down. Coping—let’s face it—takes work. You have to figure out what to do and how to do it. But by paying the price up front, you don’t have to face the catastrophe later. And by coping, I mean developing skills, tools, abilities.

If you know how to cope, you don’t need hope. And you’re better off without it.

That might sound shocking, but it’s perfectly true.

Hope sets up expectations for how things are going to be. Now here’s the thing. The minute you give yourself a set of expectations, you are more in a relationship with those expectations than with the reality in front of you. And that’s a set-up for disappointment, discouragement, despair, and rage.

Suppose your parents and your partner’s parents weren’t so hot. You want to do better with your kids. And the two of you are pretty smart, so you imagine having smart kids. So with smart kids and your being so much better parents, wow!, you have hopes of how great your kids will turn out.

There are a million stories like this.

But kids turn out the way they turn out. Sometimes the way we’d hoped. Sometimes not as well. So do you want to have a relationship with the kids you’d hoped you’d have—projecting disappointment onto the kids you actually have—or with the kids you actually have?

You can have a relationship with the kids you actually have by focusing on coping with who they are and what they need and what you need to give them what they need every step of the way. Coping as parents by giving them the coping skills they need most at any given time in their lives. Which is just another way of saying, being there for them.

There’s no hope there. And no despair either. Just presence and caring.

And that’s the way it can be in every part of our lives. Not getting caught up in the hot air balloon of hope. Just figuring out what we need to cope with what’s going on now and what’s coming up. That may not prevent bad things from happening, but it sure is the best way to prevent bad things from happening. And the best way to make good things happen.

And the good feelings you get from knowing how to make good things happen will never disappear—pop!—like a balloon.


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